Victorians were skeptical, to say the least, of forgiveness. The process seemed destabilizing at best, insincere at its worst. Forgiveness never really leaves the map of the Victorian literary landscape and yet authors attempt to push it to the margin. Dismissing forgiveness as impossible or undesirable appears to be an unrealistic a goal in many of the texts of major and minor writers of the period. An obvious reason for this quandary is that forgiveness is deeply engrained in gender issues that seem difficult to resolve. In Tess, Thomas Hardy manifests the nature of gender and forgiveness when he writes of Angel’s response to his abused wife’s confession of past errors. Tess, ravaged by Angel, forgives him and admits to her own sexual transgressions, seeking a kind of equal ground. Angel cries that such absolution is outlandish: “O Tess! Forgiveness does not apply to the case!” Numerous instances like this in Victorian literature manifest that gender and forgiveness are intertwined. What is forgivable for a man is often at odds with pardonable actions from a woman.
In his novel Can you Forgive Her? (British, 1864) Anthony Trollope makes the connection between gender and forgiveness apparent. Here, readers are asked to pardon the wayward yet irritatingly proper Alice Vavasor her sexual transgression, as she takes her place in literary history as one of the earlier female jilts in the British canon. She — and readers, no doubt — are perplexed and perhaps a little angered that characters in this novel as so quick to forgive her societal sins in which she breaks off an engagement with a handsome, rich, and even-tempered Parliament shoe-in for her macabre, facially-scarred, violent, and disinherited cousin. Like Dorothea Brooke, the protagonist in Mary Anne Evans’s Middlemarch, Vavasor looks to a man to manifest her own dreams. Brooke craved intellectual acclaim; Vavasor wants to be a member of Parliament. Both women project their desires — which are beyond their prescribed gender role — onto their male lovers in the hopes of finding fulfillment through them.
John Grey, the jilted but devoted lover of Vavasor, forgives his lover as soon as she breaks off their engagement. Her cousin Kate — whom appears asexual at times or in love with Vavasour at others (perhaps I will take this up in a later post) — has no problem ignoring Vavasor’s second rejection of her brother. Her noble relatives — all of them! — immediately acquit her of her emotional trespass. There never was so much easy forgiveness in a Victorian novel. Vavasor feels this, and it pisses her off. She doesn’t want to be forgiven. She pleads with her friends and family to consider and reconsider her actions and to judge them harshly. End at the end of the novel, Vavasor is quite disgusted by the fact that society at large can turn its head the other way and allow her to rejoin the ranks (as a government-official’s wife, no less) as a decorous woman.
If all of the world forgives Alice Vavosor then she is determined to never forgive herself, come what may. No, never. Readers are taught through Trollope’s novel that Vavasor, despite her mistakes, is an exemplary woman. She has a heightened sense of justice, morality, and propriety despite her obvious errors: more than any other character. So, Trollope teaches his readers to trust Vavasor to show them the way. And the way is quite clear: a woman ought not to ever forgive herself — no matter who else might forgive her — her sexual transgressions.
Self-forgiveness is the thing, perhaps, that Victorians can’t let go. This type of forgiveness, more than any other, is so bound to gender issues and also to the rhetoric of the times, that authors can’t seem to leave it alone despite their apparent desire to dismiss forgiveness altogether as a necessary or possible action.
Forgiveness is a return to the self, to the individual…and we all know how much Victorians adored the individual. The individual was the goal, the backbone, the god. Individuality was the saving grace in the face of error. Individuality was a social performance, like gender.
At the close of Can you Forgive Her? readers are asked to follow suit and forgive Vavasor — easily — for what she has done. As a reader in the 21st century I could really care less about her jilting Grey; I once jilted a lover. What I struggle to forgive in Vavasor is her insistence that she can never want to forgive herself.